Rogers Motorola RAZR HD LTE Review

The word ‘unassuming’ would be an apt description of the last few Motorola smartphones. Since the radical redesign of the RAZR in November, itself somewhat overshadowed by the Galaxy Nexus, Motorola has released a steady stream of high-quality and relatively inexpensive Android devices.

While the RAZR V sits comfortably in the mid-range, the RAZR HD joins the ATRIX HD as Moto’s new top-shelf product. It’s got all the makings of a great smartphone, with some high-end specs and an experience as close to stock Android Ice Cream Sandwich as we’re going to get from a major OEM. So is the refreshed RAZR worth your time? Read on to find out.

Specs

– Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich
– 4.7-inch Super AMOLED HD @ 1280×720 pixels
– 1.5Ghz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 SoC w/ Adreno 225 GPU
– 1GB RAM / 16GB internal storage (with microSD slot up to 64GB)
– 8MP camera w/ flash, 1.3MP front camera
– Dual-band WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, A-GPS
– 2530mAh battery
– 131.9 x 67.9 x 8.4 mm
– 146g
– EDGE/HSPA+/LTE

Device & Display

The Motorola RAZR HD is one well-made device. It’s got a piece of Gorilla Glass on the front, has a strong metal band around the perimeter, and a non-removable back cover surrounded by Kevlar. While touted as the same material used in bulletproof vests, all you need to know is that the RAZR HD is splash-proof, scratch-resistant and solid enough that you could probably use it as a minor weapon.

Unlike its predecessor, the RAZR goes without a drastic reverse chin near the camera sensor. At 8.4mm, its uniform thickness is not record-breaking by any means, but the extra girth allows for a higher-resolution screen and massive 2530mAh battery cell that promises all-day usage. In real world testing, we found this to be a humble exertion; the RAZR HD was one of the longest-lasting smartphones we’ve ever used.

All the ports are where we expect Moto to put them, but they’ve done right by their users frustrated with tacky port clips and plasticky buttons. The power button and volume rocker, located on the right side, have excellent feedback and are made of machined metal. To access the microSIM and microSD slots, you remove a tray with the included pin, iPhone-style. This ensures a uniform bezel with no aesthetic disruptions. The device feels exceptionally solid in the hand, and manages to stay moderately lightweight and compact, though we’d disagree with Moto’s assertions of an “edge-to-edge” display.

The 720p Super AMOLED HD display is sharp, but suffers from aberrations, pixelization and some banding due to its PenTile matrix. This is true of the Galaxy S III as well, of which the RAZR HD’s colour fidelity bears more than a passing resemblance. This means that blacks are deep, colours are gorgeously saturated, while whites take on a slightly blueish hue.

Viewing angles are great, better than expected. Maximum brightness is also very high, but the real showstopper is how close the display seems to the glass. There’s something glorious about being able to run your finger over a piece of glass and make no distinction between the tip of your digit and the accompanying movement of the glass. Companies like HTC, LG and Samsung get this, and now Motorola has joined that group in creating a beautiful, responsive and understated display. If you’re totally anti-PenTile, avoid the RAZR HD. Otherwise embrace it as Motorola’s best screen to date.

The RAZR HD is a beautiful, polished and accomplished smartphone that feels far better in the hand than the more-expensive Samsung Galaxy S III. We’re happy to report that, at the time of writing, this is the most powerful device you can buy that comes close to stock Android out of the box. That it runs Android 4.0.4 is a disappointment, but certainly not a deal-breaker.

Software & Performance

Motorola hasn’t changed much from the previous version of Android 4.0.4 that debuted on the ATRIX HD LTE and RAZR V. This is still as close to stock Android as you’re going to find on the market without purchasing a Nexus device — and this is considerably more powerful than the Galaxy Nexus. Now that Google owns Motorola Mobility, we can see some of its influence littered throughout the software; that, combined with a complete lack of bloat, makes this Rogers-exclusive one of the fastest-feeling devices on the market.

There are a couple things new from the ATRIX HD, most notably a Quick Settings screen when scrolling all the way to the left on the home screens. Most OEMs, like Samsung and LG, embed their quick setting toggles within the notification bar. When in landscape mode this significantly limits the number of notifications you can see at a given time. Motorola solves this problem by keeping the notification shade as austere as it looks on stock Android, while giving one of those many unused home screens some much-needed love.

This extends to Motorola’s approach to home screens: you only start with one. When you load up your phone for the first time, you see a screen much like the one above, with a Google folder, a Motorola clock widget with weather and battery information, and that customizable four-icon dock. By scrolling to the right, you’re invited to either add another home screen (up to seven are supported) by using one of their three templates (Media, Mobile office, Tools & utilities) or by starting blank. It appeals to the minimalist in me.

Moto also uses on-screen navigation buttons, and the virtualized menu button, which has been gaining favour with the developer community since the release of ICS last year.

The OEM doesn’t change much in the way of stock apps, either, opting to include its excellent first-party productivity apps such as an improved email app that supports pinch-to-zoom (yes, it’s more functional than Google’s own Gmail app, even when using Gmail though there is no label or archive support). For whatever reason, Motorola decided to omit the cool “preview from icon” functionality for first-party apps that was present on the ATRIX HD. But they do include Chrome as the default browser, something a company rep said Moto was very proud to be able to offer on Ice Cream Sandwich.

There’s one aspect of the software I’m not in love with, however. Well, two if you count the phone not running Jelly Bean. There’s a persistent “ROGERS” logo in the notification bar that seems to scream at you, “This phone is locked, and you’re a victim product of the carrier subsidy program.” It’s the only tenet of this phone that seems removed from Google’s tender (read: positive) influence, and has us wondering why it’s there in the first place.

One piece of good news: the Rogers RAZR HD LTE is a member of an elite group of Motorola phones whose bootloaders can be officially unlocked. You can sign up through the company’s Unlock My Device program and, once you agree to losing your warranty and potentially committing a crime (hey, they want to cover all their bases) you can proceed. While there isn’t much you can do with this unlock just yet, it stands that, down the road, there will be custom ROMs, speed-boosting kernels and, perhaps, newer versions of Android.

The RAZR HD LTE may not be running Jelly Bean, but it’s been blessed with a healthy share of butter.

In day-to-day usage, benchmarks aside, the device was one of the smoothest I’ve used to date. This is a rather objective measurement, as every high-end Android smartphone released this year can be called “smooth.” But it’s apparent that a lack of bloat, plus a very fast 1.5Ghz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor, lends the RAZR HD a sense of purpose and freedom that neither Samsung nor HTC can quite match.

In benchmarks, the RAZR HD topped the competition, most of which run almost the same hardware; even the 2GB of RAM in Samsung’s Galaxy S III couldn’t give it an edge.

What I missed most coming from a Galaxy S III running CyanogenMOD 10 (Jelly Bean) was the extra zip in scrolling and in app transitions. There were moments when using the RAZR HD that I missed Project Butter’s optimizations, not to mention having to adjust to a lack of expandable notifications.

I have no doubt that the RAZR HD LTE will be updated to Jelly Bean in the near future; this was emphasized by a Motorola representative time and again. Google has completely changed the way the company approaches software updates. That being said, any updates are subject to carrier approval, and will inevitably arrive later than users will like.

Motorola has a good thing going with its iterative and wholly familiar version of Android. But in choosing to adopt Google’s on-screen navigation button mandate, it introduces a problem quite unique to this handset.

The company’s take on Android’s stock keyboard makes the individual keys quite tall; this, combined with the on-screen navigation buttons and a fairly large distance between the bottom of the screen and the bottom of the handset itself means that the keyboard’s height is artificially and unnaturally elevated compared to most Android devices. This poses a problem, especially when first adjusting to typing on the RAZR, as you have to adjust your thumbs to hit keys that are some 20-30% higher on the screen than an average 4.7-inch device.

The keyboard itself, however, seems to be adapted from Jelly Bean, with intelligent next-word prediction and some decent, if inconsistent, performance. This is another issue I have, not with this device specifically but Android in general: keyboard performance, regardless of OEM or software version, disappoints compared to iOS and Windows Phone. It seems that the OS can’t make the keyboard a high enough priority process to ensure a smooth and consistent experience. Even SwiftKey, arguably Android’s keyboard saving grace, experiences slowdowns at times.

Camera

Like all of Motorola’s recent smartphones, the RAZR HD LTE has an underwhelming 8MP camera. While shots come out relatively clearly in good lighting conditions, things get worse — grainy and soft — when the sun goes down.

As I said in the ATRIX HD LTE review, Motorola has done a fantastic job updating its camera UI, and it’s one of the most attractive, usable in the industry. The RAZR HD’s shutter is instant, and you have a bevy of modes, from HDR to panorama to burst mode, that should stand you in good stead when comparing features with your friends’ Androids and iPhones.

The problems arise when you actually have to make the comparisons. While shots have plenty of detail in good lighting, the camera sensor is unable to pick the correct exposure or white balance, resulting in photos with poor dynamic range and a general look of softness.

While neither phone captures the smooth texture of a pomegranate skin very well, you can see the RAZR HD has a lot of trouble with lighting (it was dusk when the shot was taken), resulting in portions of the photo that are overblown. The iPhone 5 takes a smoother overall photo but still suffers from slight blurriness caused by micro movements in the hand; instead of raising the shutter speed and the ISO, the photo gets taken at 1/20 second with an 80 ISO.

As you can see from the image above, the RAZR HD can’t compete with the iPhone 5 in well lit scenes. Photos appear dull, soft and more “phone-like” than the equivalent 8MP sensor and f/2.4 lens on the iPhone.

The phone does, however, take excellent 1080p video, and if you can live with a bit of softness in your still photos, you can still take some excellent shots with the RAZR HD LTE.

Battery Life

When Motorola promised all-day battery from its latest flagship, we were skeptical. Now, we’re believers. The 2530mAh cell, combined with prudent use of Motorola’s SMARTACTIONS app, gave us nearly two days of regular usage from the device.

Let me repeat that: this is an Android phone with almost two days of regular usage.

In repeated tests, we managed between 30 and 45 hours of moderate-to-high usage from the device. That included letting SMARTACTIONS automatically turn off the phone’s radios while I slept, and being aware of my usage habits, but the results were still unprecedented. Even when I turned off SMARTACTIONS and used the phone as much as possible it lasted well into the night, hitting the red after 19 hours.

In other words, if you’re looking for an Android phone that won’t necessitate having to sit near a charger all day, the Motorola RAZR HD LTE is your best bet. Need I remind you that these results were obtained while running on the Rogers LTE network. I didn’t even test the device on HSPA+ (3G) but there is no doubt an extra 5-10 hours per day could be obtained using that setting.

Network speeds, Call Quality and Miscellaneous

60Mbps. The Motorola RAZR HD LTE was able to consistently hit 60Mbps over the Rogers LTE network in areas with good signal, all over the Greater Toronto Area. And the phone had higher-than-average signal strength in most parts of the city compared to the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III.

In other words, this phone is tremendously fast, and maintains its speed when other phones can’t. Call quality over the Rogers network was excellent, and now that HD Voice has been enabled, I was able to hear other Rogers users on the other end of the line clearly, with no semblance of sibilance.

The speaker on the back of the device is, like on most smartphones, passable at best. It gets loud but distorts easily and is generally only good for conference calls. Headphone quality was good.

Conclusions

Things are looking up for Motorola. While the RAZR HD LTE is unlikely to sell as many units as the equivalent Samsung device, it is the first smartphone released by the new Google property that I can safely say competes with, and succeeds, the speed, build quality and design fundamentals of its closest competitors. If this phone had been released in April with the One X, it would have made a big splash. Now it enters a market saturated with fantastic Android smartphones and Apple’s new iPhone.

For $99 on a three-year term the RAZR HD LTE is great value. If you’re an Android enthusiast, that the RAZR HD can be bootloader unlocked is a huge advantage. Its gorgeous screen, great build quality and unbelievably good battery life is undermined only by its middling camera quality. If Motorola can manage to update the phone to Jelly Bean ahead in good time, it stands to be one of the best phones on the market — at least for another few months.